Sanctuary vs Captive Facility: Key differences you need to know

What comes to mind when we use the term ‘captive facility’? What about the word ‘sanctuary’? It’s likely that two vastly different images of the animals in these places appeared in your mind when you read those words. 


A captive facility immediately brings to mind animals in cages and small enclosures, substandard care, and a general sense of lacking well-being. A sanctuary elicits thoughts of care, compassion, a love for the animals. 


But, does calling a captive facility a sanctuary make it more ethical? 

It’s not surprising that it has become confusing for tourists and visitors to understand the difference between a sanctuary and commercial captive facility, or when facility owners themselves blur the distinction between what is ethical and unethical. 


In South Africa, a facility may call themselves a sanctuary without having to actually comply with international sanctuary standards. In essence, a zoo, petting facility, or even a breeding facility, might choose to add ‘sanctuary’ to their name, dubiously making the public believe they are operating as a rescue or place of refuge for abandoned, abused, or neglected animals. 


According to NEMBA, a sanctuary is considered a facility that provides permanent care to threatened or protected species, like for example lions, that could not sustain themselves in the wild. However this definition is far too broad and does not encompass a no breeding, no interaction or no trade policies, higher standards of care, including living conditions, veterinary care, and other examples that improve an animal’s quality of life. This loophole allows commercial facilities operating for profit to call themselves sanctuaries even though they are breeding, are still buying and selling animals and the animals are used for entertainment purposes. 


The truth, unfortunately, is that more often than not, these facilities are operating for commercial gain under the guise of rescuing and homing the animals in their care. The reality is that in South Africa we only have a handful of genuine sanctuaries who operate purely for the care of their animals. In these sanctuaries, the animals are not bought and sold; there is no breeding; no interaction; the animals have options to hide from tourist views; and no activities are conducted that negatively impact the well-being of the animals. 

To make this distinction clearer, we need to first look at the non-negotiable criteria to which genuine sanctuaries should adhere:


  • A genuine sanctuary does not breed with any wildlife: Breeding predators, such as lions, tigers, and other big cats, has long been established by experts as a practice that does not contribute to conservation in the wild. These animals could never be successfully released into functioning ecosystems and would therefore simply be added to the captive life cycle. There are only a few examples of breeding wild animals for genuine, wild conservation purposes.

  • A genuine sanctuary does not trade in animals: the buying and selling of wild animals between facilities is not allowed as a sanctuary. Unfortunately, many captive facilities claim to have ‘rescued’ their animals, making it vital that visitors question the authenticity of these claims: Where were the animals rescued from? Under what circumstances? Was money exchanged for the animals? Were they bred initially for commercial purposes? Will they have a forever home?

  • A genuine sanctuary does never allow human-animal interactions: it has been established by welfare experts that human-animal interactions with wild animals is harmful to their well-being. The stress caused by a stream of paying visitors to touch, feed, and cuddle is unnatural and damaging to the animal’s welfare. In addition, once they are too big and dangerous to play with, they are often sold to another facility to become part of the life cycle of a captive lion.

  • A genuine sanctuary provides a lifelong home for animals: the animals in a sanctuary are often rehomed from abusive and neglectful conditions and given a second chance. They are placed in the biggest possible enclosures that mimic natural conditions, including lots of trees or shrubs, natural hiding spots, water, varied and quality food, etc. Wooden platforms and concrete places to sleep are not natural or adequate by any means. Captive facilities create conditions that to make the viewing of the animals as easy as possible. In many cases, the animals rarely have a chance to retreat, adding further stress to their living conditions. Many captive facilities rely on cheap sources of protein, such as chicken carcasses or donated older meat, to keep costs to a minimum.

So, if a facility calls themselves a sanctuary, what warning signs should we look out for?


  • Physical / hands-on interactions: hand feeding, petting, and walking are activities sanctuaries would never engage in. Even if only the owner or caretaker interacts with the animals, this is still a sign that people’s interest is prioritised over the animal’s well-being.

  • Enclosure size and quality: each province has set guidelines regarding the minimum enclosure size for lions and other big cats. This does not mean to say provincial guidelines have the animals’ welfare at heart, but small enclosures that do not allow for freedom of movement are a serious red flag. The cleanliness is also important – are there bones, feathers, and old pieces of meat and faeces lying around? Are the enclosures or cages bare, lacking in trees, climbing opportunities, and natural hiding spots? What is the substrate the animals live on?

  • Feeding quality: what does the animals’ diet consist of and how often are they fed? Is feeding part of the tourist experience? Do the animals look obese or extremely thin? Is their diet largely unvaried and consists solely of donated dead chickens, this is a major health concern.  

  • Behaviour: snarling, pacing and other repetitive stereotypic behaviours, such as mouthing or chewing at fences/bars, self-mutilation (plucking, biting, etc), swimming in circles, excessive sleeping, and swaying are signs of severe distress. 

  • Health: do the animals have scars and/or injuries, such as cuts and bite wounds, which can be from fighting? Are they surrounded by flies? Do they appear to have missing fur and black patches on their bodies, which could be mange?

Why is this so problematic?

The sad reality is that genuine sanctuaries exist due to the abusive and exploitative conditions in the commercial captive predator industry, including circuses and zoos globally. While genuine sanctuaries do great welfare work for the animals in their care, their existence should not be necessary if wild animals were not kept in captive conditions in the first place and particularly in neglectful and abusive situations. 

 In addition to the welfare concerns of wild animals in captivity, another reason these blurred lines are so problematic is that it misdirects necessary funds and attention from genuine conservation initiatives. 

When well-meaning members of the public donate resources, time, and funds, or just pay entry fees, to commercial captive facilities portraying themselves as sanctuaries, genuine conservation efforts lose out. In the absence of a commercial captive predator industry, more funding can be made available for genuine wildlife conservation on the ground. 

It falls upon us to critically and consciously wade through the muddy waters created by captive predator owners and influencers who misdirect our attention through the use of misleading language to pull at the heartstrings of those who unknowingly support illegitimate sanctuaries and conservation efforts.

Do as I say… but not as I do?

There is a worrying trend amongst digital influencers and captive predator owners portraying their close interactions with these animals as “special bonds” and using this bond to justify posting images and videos of their hands-on and unnatural play-time with their animals. At the same time, they tout anti-interaction and anti-captivity messages on those same social media platforms, creating a situation where their actions and messaging are in complete contradiction.


Social media influencers who own captive predators, it would appear, have become entrenched in a charismatic game of convincing followers that they are the privileged few who can interact with “wild animals”, and that what they do is ethical or for conservation purposes, like “saving the species”. Unfortunately, none of these claims are true. Such influencers not only have a duty of care for the animals they keep under their control, but also a social responsibility to use their influence and platforms wisely, which appears to be sorely lacking. 


What is animal sentience?

Animal sentience is the ability of animals to feel and experience very similar emotions to humans, such as joy, pleasure, pain and fear. The global scientific community agrees on the notion that an animal has the capacity to feel both positive and negative emotions. Where there is no consensus related to the debate around which animal groups are considered sentient and which are not. For example, do we believe insects are sentient? Scientists generally do agree that all vertebrates belong to the group of sentient beings.


This ought to make us stop for a minute and give special consideration to the thousands of predators bred and kept in captivity for commercial gain in South Africa.


This is vitally important as it affects the way we view animals as sentient beings, in so far as changing the moral status of animals, and how we can provide for and should ensure their welfare and well-being.


How does this impact animal welfare?

Predators like lions, cheetahs and tigers are apex predators in the wild and their needs in captivity are extremely difficult to meet. Hunting is simply not an option in captivity despite it being an integral part of their natural behaviour. For social predators, like lions, hunting forms an important aspect of their inherently social natures.


In the National Environmental Management Act (NEMBA) animal well-being is defined as “the holistic circumstances and conditions of an animal, which are conducive to its physical, physiological and mental health and quality of life, including the ability to cope with its environment”. This definition is in line with the internationally recognised Mellor’s Five Domains Model for animal welfare assessment, which identifies four functional domains (nutrition, physical environment, health, and behavioural interactions) and a fifth domain of the animal’s mental state.

  1. When we accept the responsibility for a wild animal and keep this animal in captivity, we need to promote and care for both their physical and mental well-being, and ensure that they can display as many of their natural behaviours as possible.
  2. They need to be provided with a diet that meets the needs of the species, for example, how often they are fed, the kind of quality and quantity of the meat they are fed, and how this is presented to stimulate them mentally. Clean fresh water needs to be available at all times.
  3. There is no one size fits all approach for their physical environment or enclosures. Not only is size important, but also the diversity and complexity of the enclosure. For example, lions need different viewpoints, hiding places and vertical spaces such as lookouts, while tigers need water for swimming and bathing. Wild animals also need places to shelter from the elements, whether this is the heat, cold or rain. In addition, the enclosures need to be safe for the animal caretakers.
  4. While in captivity, the owner is also responsible for their health, which needs to be monitored regularly and when necessary a wildlife veterinarian must provide treatment for these captive big cats. Many health issues can be avoided by maintaining hygienic conditions, such as regularly removing any old meat or bones, as well as faeces.

It is clear from the above that it is difficult in a captive environment to meet all of the animal’s needs and natural behaviours and thus it requires careful consideration in terms of providing enrichment. Enrichment can come in many different ways, like a cardboard box filled with straw and faeces from other animals, sensory stimuli like scent trails, or presenting food differently by, for example, hanging meat from a branch. The best kind of enrichment, however, is for social animals to live in small groups of their own kind.

Is play-time with humans enrichment?

This is the point where social media influencers with captive big cats often argue that their interactions with their wild animals is a form of enrichment. However, research has shown that higher cortisol levels were experienced in captive populations of animals, suggesting the animals are experiencing higher-than-normal levels of stress in captivity. Researchers also caution that demonstrations of physical interactions can have negative, unintended consequences that go beyond an individual’s actions alone. Those working with captive predators have a duty of care for their wildlife and are social responsible for the far-reaching consequences of irresponsible and even unethical actions through their social media platforms.


The unintended consequences of such “profound experiences” with captive wildlife can lead to people following influencers wanting to interact with captive wild animals themselves and to become part of the vicious cycle of the captive predator industry. Furthermore, such portrayals run a serious risk of legitimising the exploitation of wild animals for entertainment purposes.


In South Africa alone, we have anywhere between 8,000-12,000 lions and other big carnivores in captivity, many of which are used at some point of their life cycle purely for our entertainment. Interactive activities, such as cub petting and walking with lions, creates an exploitative environment in which animals are coerced into constant human contact and even cruel training methods. Many of these animals are also kept in substandard conditions, leading to animal cruelty and neglect. 


With the global demand for exotic pets mushrooming and the commercial captive lion industry still growing in South Africa, it’s more critical than ever that we all reflect on the consequences of our actions, and challenge people who are involved in unethical activities. 


The truth is that the best viewing platforms, ponds, and hanging toys cannot and do not fulfil the needs of these complex, sentient beings. Neither can the “special bond” with a human replace the complex social structure with their own kind.


Owners of captive predators, including those who showcase their animals on social media, have a social responsibility to carefully consider how their own conduct impacts not only on the well-being of the animals in their care, but also on the subsequent actions of their followers. 

“There’s a certain tragic isolation in believing that humans stand apart in every way from the creatures that surround them, that the rest of creation was shaped exclusively for our use.” (Bekoff, 2005)

Finding common ground between NGOs and traditional health practitioners in South Africa

By Taylor Tench (EIA Senior Wildlife Policy Analyst)

Ceres Kam (EIA Wildlife Campaigner)

Louise de Waal (Blood Lions Campaign Manager)

Stephanie Klarmann (Blood Lions Campaign Coordinator)

“We are the guardians of the environment. Talk to us and involve us if you want to save the wildlife.”

This is the message repeated loud and clear by a leading group of South African traditional health practitioners, or THPs.

Over the course of three days, Blood Lions and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) engaged in passionate, honest, expansive and, above all, deeply enlightening discussions with 20 senior and new THPs from across five of South Africa’s nine provinces.

Our goals were to start a dialogue with THPs to better understand their practices, learn about their aspirations for, and the challenges facing, traditional medicine in South Africa and explain what we strive to achieve as conservation NGOs to see if and how the conservation and traditional African medicine communities could work together to protect our shared environment.

For thousands of years, traditional medicine has been a cultural, health and spiritual cornerstone for communities across the African continent. THPs come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but all have received “the calling” from their ancestors. THPs utilise plant and animal materials combined with ancestral knowledge systems to address both physical ailments and the spiritual needs of their patients.

Because THPs rely on materials from the natural world, there is an obvious overlap between the goals of the conservation and traditional African medicine sectors when it comes to protecting ecosystems that support healthy populations of animal and plant species.

The THP sector is complex, mostly unregulated and remains poorly understood. It is often subject to misinformed assumptions by outsiders, in particular those associated with the Global North. At times, this has included wildlife conservation organisations concerned about the potential negative impacts of using threatened species in traditional treatments.

Among the many important issues discussed, several key points and themes emerged.

The THPs at November’s roundtable were acutely aware of the major threats to wildlife in South Africa, including the poaching and trafficking of wildlife by organised crime groups. An important concern raised was the difficulty in accessing certain ingredients (known as muthi) in a legal and sustainable way, which in turn is closely linked to issues of equity and ethics when it comes to the use of South Africa’s wildlife. This is especially true when it comes to use by relatively wealthy South Africans and foreign nationals for activities such as game ranching, private reserve ownership, trophy hunting, etcetera, compared to use by and available to indigenous communities.

THPs stressed that while wildlife products are used in traditional African medicine, threatened and/or protected species do not typically constitute a significant proportion of muthi used in common remedies and, when used, are often in very small amounts. They also highlighted that certain wildlife parts – such as bones – can be passed down from one practitioner to another over generations, thereby avoiding the need for new offtake of wildlife. The THPs clearly expressed their view that narratives describing “traditional healers” driving species to extinction are unfounded, unfair and harmful.

Nevertheless, the opaque nature of muthi markets and suppliers – which have emerged in no small part due to restrictions on access and severely reduced agency for THPs when it comes to sustainably and legally acquiring ingredients – is a key challenge for the traditional African medicine and conservation sectors in South Africa.

Many issues raised during the roundtable were complicated, interlinked and dealt with larger political and societal issues in South Africa as a country still grappling with the challenge of creating a fair, transparent, equitable and well-functioning post-apartheid society.

Successful wildlife conservation depends on thriving communities and as such we cannot ignore challenges such as governance, dissonance between traditional and legislative/administrative structures and representation. THPs have often been left out of decision-making processes or, if included, consultation has been treated merely as a box-ticking exercise.

Perhaps the most important point to come from the meeting is that the THPs desire and are ready to take ownership of environmental issues connected to traditional African medicine. Whether that be local grassroots initiatives such as river clean-ups or addressing more challenging issues such as inscrutable muthi supply chains, the THPs who attended the roundtable are eager to do what it takes to more widely establish themselves as respected environmental stewards.

We were inspired by the forthright and productive discussions led by the THPs who attended the roundtable. It is clear that we have a shared interest in protecting the environment for present and future generations and we look forward to continuing to cultivate these relationships.

Our organisations are entering the new year excited about the prospects for future collaboration with THPs to safeguard South Africa’s natural and cultural heritage.

Youth For Lions Blog: Volunteering: How to support true wildlife conservationists instead of money grabbing profiteers

Written by Youth Ambassador, Oliver Riley-Smith and published with permission
© Oliver Riley-Smith

With the globe growing ever smaller through social media and modern transport, volunteering is growing ever larger. Young people around the world are becoming more passionate to travel and volunteer across the globe but unfortunately many unethical organisations are capitalising on this. Dodging the complex minefield that surrounds ethical and unethical wildlife volunteering can be a real challenge.

A common and very accessible form of experiencing wildlife conservation is through short-term voluntourism trips that require advanced payment so you can support a charity organisation of your choice, often with little or no training. Many international travel and volunteering agencies promote these kinds of short voluntourism trips abroad, often no longer than a few days to a couple of weeks, where individuals have the chance to work alongside wildlife (often at quite a high cost). Such trips are a great and entertaining introduction to environmental volunteering and are seen across the globe. However, it is important to remember that there are many wildlife organisations offering voluntourism experiences who claim to be ethical facilities, but whose passions and goals lie elsewhere.

Let’s take South Africa as an example. Many unethical captive predator facilities in South Africa that claim to be big cat sanctuaries are often nothing more than commercial ventures profiting from the animals in their care. These facilities often provide voluntourism experiences with the promise of helping lion conservation by bottle feeding and hand rearing so-called “orphaned” lion cubs (and other big cat species). The harsh reality is that the orphaning of the cubs is most of the time at the hands of the facility itself. In almost every instance these sorts of commercial facilities involve big cats kept in sub par conditions with uncertain futures and the potential for further suffering, and in some cases, death as a result of “canned” or captive trophy hunting and/or the sale of their bones for the international wildlife trade.

© Oliver Riley-Smith

Sadly, many voluntourism agencies have been known to support these unethical institutions with false claims that draw in the less experienced. Much of the volunteer work advertised by these unethical organisations involves working very closely with wildlife, often hand feeding or directly handling wild animals and birds that should be allowed to live as natural a life as possible. Interacting with captive wildlife that cannot be successfully rehabilitated, whether you are a volunteer or paying tourist, is unacceptable and in many cases dangerous.

It is important to note that there are ethical wildlife organisations that offer voluntourism opportunities to paying volunteers who want to support genuine conservation efforts, both physically and financially. The additional funds raised from these volunteers are vitally important for the day-to-day running of these organisations and cover the costs of, for example animal care (in the case of true sanctuaries) or essential tracking equipment (in the case of wild conservation projects). There are also institutions that may provide hands-on work with select species that are suitable for rehabilitation and release. Individual animals whose captive rehabilitation is necessary due to incidents such as poaching or human intervention can be rehabilitated by volunteers under the guidance of experienced veterinary and/or management staff.

Having seen the aftermath of a rhino poaching incident myself, it is clear why some species such as orphaned rhinos need constant company in the beginning to provide solace and help them deal with their immense trauma. Bird chicks, often orphaned by hunting, or equines such as zebras are also species that volunteers can safely work alongside and help to rehabilitate. These species are not known to become habituated through controlled human contact and their releases are mostly viable. On the other hand, at many big cat facilities that profiteer from the animals, the cubs people interact with were generally taken from their mothers at a very young age so they can be handled by paying tourists and volunteers. Big cats are never suitable for interaction with humans, which is just one of the many reasons why they can never be rehabilitated or released into the wild [Learn more here: Myth Busting]. It is key to understand the species you may be working with and the organisation you wish to support to avoid getting into a situation where your own safety or the animal’s welfare is put at risk.

All forms of ethical voluntourism provide an amazing experience for the volunteer, while supporting the organisation in whichever way they need. For example, short-stay voluntourism trips can focus on providing the best experience possible for the volunteer due to the shortness of their stay, with the key benefit for the organisation being the financial support which they can invest in their conservation work. Longer term volunteering is often more focused on providing additional people-power and the best services for the organisation with the key benefit being the tasks volunteers perform on the ground. This also involves a more realistic delve into wildlife conservation where you can experience the spectacular as well as the more dull activities that turn the cogs of conservation.

With the growing appeal of voluntourism to many across the globe, ensuring you are supporting those whose goal is to aid wildlife ethically and responsibly is becoming ever more problematic. Voluntourism experiences are fantastic opportunities to pursue shorter environmental adventures while also financially supporting the institutions you are visiting. It is important to bear in mind that the activities you are likely to pursue on such ventures involve the more glamorous side of conservation, with your time on the excursion being diverted from more gruelling tasks. If you do locate an ethical facility that you wish to support through volunteering, your visit, whether short or long, will no doubt be supporting the fight for nature.

If you are a prospective volunteer, and you choose to book through an agency offering such experiences, always confirm the venues you are visiting far in advance of your trip to ensure that you are not being shipped off to an unethical facility without your knowledge. The only way to avoid putting yourself in a situation where you are supporting an unethical facility is through researching the agency, the facility and the area in which you want to volunteer. Use trusted sources such as Working Abroad, Wildlife ACT and Volunteers in Africa Beware, and ask questions to uncover the welfare and ethical standards of the organisation at which you wish to volunteer. Investigating the itinerary, cost and location of the volunteering project can provide valuable insight into its legitimacy. It should be your prime concern to ask all the necessary questions and avoid such commercial, profit-driven institutions whose priority falls away from wildlife conservation and animal welfare. Keep in mind that a true sanctuary focuses on the welfare and well-being of the wildlife in their care and are often registered non-profit organisations.

© Oliver Riley-Smith

I have had the opportunity to volunteer both at home in the UK and abroad in Namibia and South Africa. In South Africa, I joined Project Rhino where I volunteered to support the delivery of hundreds of meals to communities in Zululand (KwaZulu-Natal province) to help young children through the struggles that the COVID-19 lockdown presented. By supporting communities that surround nature reserves, it dissuades them from resorting to poaching for subsistence (i.e. bushmeat) or money (i.e. rhino poaching for profit). Alongside Grant Fowlds and Kingsley Holgate I was mentored on the numerous components that make up true conservation in South Africa. I was taken through the bush of the Eastern Cape province creating bush trails on mountainsides, tracking black rhino, and learning about black rhino expansion projects. Previously Project Rhino also gave me the opportunity to attend the World Youth Wildlife Summit in the Kruger National Park, where I volunteered as a group leader to facilitate the environmental education of 250 youth from around the globe.

Both these experiences had the essential keystones of ethical volunteering in common: it directly benefited Project Rhino and their initiatives in a responsible manner. Although the experience was incredibly enlightening and entertaining for me as a volunteer, it did require hard work and a realistic mindset, and was aimed at primarily benefiting the organisation and surrounding communities.

One thing is for certain: Volunteering organisations with only profit at their core, are of no benefit to wildlife or their conservation.

I hope this article may help you make a true positive difference for lions and nature while avoiding those that wish otherwise.

© Oliver Riley-Smith